The typical New Year's Resolution is some grandiose goal like “i'm gonna write a novel! after this ooone more episode on netflix.” And though dreaming big sounds nice, big is de-motivating, because you're always reminded how far away you are from your goal. It's worse if you do accomplish your goal: if your goal was the source of your motivation, by reaching your goal, you kill your motivation.
What to do instead? Dream small!
In 2018, I (tried to) form one small habit a month. Unlike "resolutions", a habit's goal is always within reach: one tiny thing, one day at a time. Eventually, the habit will become automatic, so it'll take willpower not to do it! And best of all: small habits are how you accomplish big goals. “Write a 50,000-word novel in a year” and “Write 150 words a day” are mathematically identical(-ish), but one feels overwhelming, the other feels doable.
So, here's the 12 habits in 12 months I attempted this year. A third of them failed. But hey, it's not an experiment if you can't fail.
My super-high-tech system for tracking habits: I draw a calendar on a post-it note. For each day I do my habit, I draw an O. For each day I fail, I draw an X. My challenge is to see how long I can go without breaking the chain.
✅ = habit successfully made
❌ = habit failed, i miss an average of more than 1 day per week
Turns out you don't have to shave your head and move to a mountain to get the benefits of meditation. I've had anxiety disorder. Meditation has been shown in replicated randomized controlled trials to be effective for anxiety & mood disorders.
I'd tried to meditate before, but had lots of misconceptions. I thought the goal was to “clear your mind” (it's not: it's to observe your mind, like a scientist) and I thought “focus on your breath” meant “breathe manually” (no: observe your breath) This 2-minute video was what finally got me to do meditation properly & regularly – I highly recommend you stop reading and watch this now:
After successfully making a meditation habit, I was hooked on habits! Next, I wanted to try something that's a big hurdle for a lot of trans/non-binary folk: changing your voice (without surgery). My daily plan was to practice my voice for a minute, record it, and listen back to it.
I failed to keep up this habit. To be fair, I was traveling a bunch that month for stressful legal reasons, so I thought I'd have better luck next month.
Although, this was the month I gave up my smartphone and switched to a dumbphone. This was less “mindfulness” and more “my phone broke and smartphones have somehow gotten more expensive now, what the hell happened to Moore's Law”
“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man blah blah blah” quote Benjamin Button or something. So I set an alarm for 6:30am each morning to interrupt my natural sleep cycle, on my brand-new dumbphone.
I did not become healthy, wealthy, and wise. I just woke up each morning grumpy.
Habit failed, third time in a row. I was starting to worry that my “one new habit a month” scheme was crumbling, so I decided to dream even smaller...
I revised my resolution from “one new habit a month” to “one new or improved habit a month”. Meditation was already working wonders for me: I had less anxiety, connected with friends more, and even became less sensitive to noise. With just 5 minutes a day! So this month, I tried to go up to 10 minutes a day... and it worked!
Previously, I meditated where-ever and whenever during the day, but this month I made a more specific "cue": right after I wake up & make tea, meditate in the living room sitting upright in a chair. (no lotus position for me, thank you very much)
Habit = Cue + Routine. So the more consistent your "cue", the quicker your habit will become automatic.
After that success with improving an existing habit, I wanted to re-attempt making a new habit. This time, it was a big one: Spaced Repetition.
I made a whole comic-game about what Spaced Repetition is and how it changed my life. In summary: Spaced Repetition is “flashcards on steroids”, and lets you commit anything you want to long-term memory with just 20 minutes a day.
My “cue” for this habit: right after dinner, do Spaced Repetition at my quiet bedroom desk. Initially, I used it to learn French – though I'm now also using it to also learn Python, ukulele songs, and interesting facts from non-fiction books I read.
Although, there was something else I did at my bedroom desk I wanted to NOT do...
Around the 200th time I was watching tentacle-twincest porn, I thought, “hm, maybe this isn't healthy.” I've no moral judgments about porn in general, but personally, it was eating up a lot of my time and screwing up my sleep cycle.
Now, this month required a different strategy, because I wasn't creating a new habit, I was quitting an existing habit. So instead of creating a cue, I had to remove my cue.
This was actually surprisingly easy. I just modified my hosts file to block my favorite porn sites. And, just in case, I also kept my laptop hidden during evenings. (Didn't need to modify or hide my phone, because it's a dumbphone.)
And now, I only treat myself to Zootopia vore at most once a week. Progress!
A simple habit that was surprisingly helpful. It won't change your life or anything, but it's just really nice to start each day by achieving a small, aesthetically-pleasing goal.
I eventually realized I was an idiot and the saying was “early to bed and early to rise”. So instead of setting an alarm telling me to wake up, I set an alarm telling me to go to sleep. That way, I could wake up early and naturally.
It worked, with one hiccup: before this, my "normal" sleep time was 12:00. I tried to switch it straight to 10:30, but my body rebelled. It was better for me to first aim for 11:30, then 11:00, then 10:30. A lesson I'll re-learn again and again: dream small.
After having successfully created 5 new habits – meditation, spaced repetition, quitting porn, making my bed, sleeping early – I wanted to try voice-training again.
I realized what I'd been missing the first two times: a consistent cue! I made "finish meditating" my cue to practice voice-training. After tea & meditation, my vocal chords were relaxed and ready.
I've been keeping this habit up since! If you're curious, here's one (of many) voice-feminization tutorials I was following, and here's what my before-and-after sounds like:
(It's not great, but it's not bad for 3 months, without surgery or formal voice/singing training!)
Eventually I'll hit diminishing returns, but I'm not there yet. This month I boosted my meditation by another 5 minutes.
I also started taking notes about what worked and didn't during meditation (as well as voice training), especially what is currently beyond my comfort zone. For the past several months, I'd been doing practice, but not deliberate practice. Practice is simply “doing it again and again”. Deliberate Practice is “doing it just slightly beyond your comfort zone”. (Incidentally, this is how Spaced Repetition differs from regular flashcards: the review system is set up so that it forces you to review your weakest cards more)
Simple practice makes you plateau. Deliberate practice makes you grow.
Now that I was sleeping earlier, I was waking earlier. Yet, I wasn't getting out of the house much earlier. I thought I could remedy this by packing my backpack the night before, so I could get out the door as soon as possible. That'd be a good final habit for the last month of 2018!
Anyway, I failed. For some reason I kept forgetting to pack my bag. Now that I think about it, it might be because I don't have a consistent cue yet.
Writing this blog post helped me realize what worked and what didn't, for my habits in 2018. Hopefully some of these lessons will be helpful to you – and to my future self – in 2019:
Here's the best academic-yet-layperson-friendly paper I've seen yet on habits, just 3 pages long: “Making Health Habitual” [pdf]
In summary: Habit = Cue + Routine
The doctors had patients make plans in the form of “When [cue], I'll do [routine]” – also known as implementation intentions [pdf] – and asked them to stick to it until it became automatic. Add up a whole bunch of small healthy habits, and that is equivalent to a healthy life.
If you like listicles, here's my Top 5 Lessons on habit-formation from this year:
And if book-reading is a habit you have or want to start, here's 3 of my favorite books on habits: The Habit Guide by Leo Babauta, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Overall, I'd say my one-habit-a-month experiment was a success – even the failures were part of the success! So in 2019, I'll keep making one new habit a month, taking special care to dream small, and have concrete “When [cue], I'll [routine]” plans.
That's the greatest habit of all: the habit of making habits.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
~ Aristotle, paraphrased by Will Durant, misattributed by Matt Light